Under the Tree is a short interactive documentary series about three social entrepreneurs working in Eastern Africa. I’m producing it in collaboration with Mama Hope to provide a more tangible look at the work that they help support. Mama Hope is a nonprofit here in San Francisco that connects people working in underserved communities to resources like money and training so that they can make an even greater impact. They primarily partner in East and West Africa—I spent four months living, working, and filming with folks in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. Stop the Pity is a campaign by Mama Hope (or really, it’s their mantra) that is meant to call out the common misrepresentation of people living in lean economies. People (in this case, of Eastern Africa) are portrayed as passive, helpless and waiting to be saved by outsiders. To me, this has a couple of really important consequences: it disconnects people from the global context of issues and how many economic imbalances came to be and it can sometimes make people want to support charity for the wrong reasons, to feel better about feeling bad.
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What made you leave your job to pursue these things?
The simple reason I left my full-time position at Google X was that I saw an opportunity—to learn new skills, to practice old ones, and to have a unique experience. I realize that leaving a full-time position and dive into the unknown is a privilege, but it’s an opportunity that can present itself to anyone, especially if you look for it. The important point is to take advantage of those risks that are available to take and not say "Next time".
Once I proposed my vision to Mama Hope and I saw that both they and their partners were excited about it, leaving my job was easy. Time will tell whether the grander goals of the project will be achieved, but for now, I’m satisfied knowing that each episode has been loved by those who participated and helped inspire those who have viewed it.
Why is this project so important to you?
The project started because I wanted to explore how nonprofits exhibit their impact. I probably don’t donate as much money as I should, but I do like to donate to causes that are close to me or my friends. So, being one who donates often enough, I was tired of seeing infographics and grand number driven impact reports. I understand that metrics are important, but that should only be part of the story. These are individual human beings you are now involved with. Wouldn’t it be more compelling to hear a story that you might personally identify with? There’s a reason that most people donate to causes they or a family member has been affected by.
Also, as I’ve had time to think about my goals for this project, I’ve also been able to start working on defining a new professional purpose. What used to be “work hard and hope interesting things will happen” wasn’t working for me anymore. Leaving my job was an intentional shedding of where that attitude took me. During my four months traveling and gathering the foundations of what would become Under the Tree, I realized just how much fun I was having, how satisfied I felt, and how much I wished it would never end. I was doing work people wanted. That’s when it clicked: why should it have to end?
What did you learn from each partner?
For Episode 3, working title Women Of The World Take Over, I lived in a housing compound with David and Erick, founders of the Akili Preparatory School. I spent a lot of time with those guys and oftentimes a long lunch or a long drive into town would turn into a chat about the bigger things going on in our lives.
Erick and David sometimes spoke about how much they struggled to make the jump to move back to the slum they grew up in to start a school. To leave behind promising careers in Nairobi even with families to help support. To ignore people around them telling them they were crazy. In one interview, Erick said, “With that faith to start (the school), we'll share our ideas with people. Some will discourage us, tell us it's not possible, but we just need to forge ahead. If you look at money or this and that for discouragement, we would not start what we wanted. So, we said, these other things will just come, but we need to take this initiative.” It made me realize all over again that no one can tell you are understand what’s right for you. Listen to yourself and what you’ve learned about yourself.
What’s next for you? How has the project affected your return and current life in San Francisco?
I’m still working on Under the Tree while doing some freelance design consulting in between. The variety makes the long days of editing bearable. As for what’s next, there are a few independent projects I’d like to tackle, but I’m always keeping my ear to the ground in case another opportunity comes along to help someone tell an amazing story.
Ryan LeCluyse is a graphic designer and photographer who wants to help better the world around him. He has worked for Google, Pentagram and TIME. His favorite vegetable is kale. No, wait, beetroot.
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